At Anthony Avalos murder trial, siblings testify about alleged family torture

LANCASTER, CALIF. -- FRIDAY, JUNE 29, 2018: A memorial shrine for murdered 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, is assembled on a sidewalk near Avalos' home on Challenger Way near Ave. K in Lancaster, Calif., on June 29, 2018. Anthony's mother and her boyfriend have been arrested in connection with his death. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
A memorial shrine for 10-year-old Anthony Avalos on a sidewalk near the boy's home in Lancaster on June 29, 2018. Anthony's mother and her boyfriend are on trial in his death. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Anthony Avalos' siblings say everything changed after their mother's new boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, moved in.

Suddenly there were bizarre punishments, grueling workouts and strange rules about eating. One cruelty often flowed into another.

The boy's sister, Destiny, said she remembers being made to kneel on uncooked rice over a section of carpet that had been torn up. There were nails sticking out of the shoddy flooring of their Lancaster home, she said, old but still sharp enough to draw blood from her knees.

Anthony's brother, Rafael, described being forced to hold a squatted position or keep weights high in the air over his head for hours at a time. At one point, Rafael said, he got so weak he fell over and smacked his head on a metal chair, opening a wound that required staples to close.

Sometimes, Destiny said, the children were forced to fight one another in gladiator style combat, with the winner being spared from Leiva's alleged sadistic punishments. But when she was matched up against her older brother Anthony, Destiny said, the 10-year-old always let her win to save her from Leiva.

The two children who say they were tortured alongside Anthony took the stand Wednesday at the murder trial of Leiva and their mother, Heather Barron. Leiva and Barron are charged with killing Anthony through years of torment that ended with his death in 2018 and abusing both Rafael and Destiny. If convicted of all charges after a trial expected to last several more weeks, they face life in prison.

The children, identified only by their first names, spoke slowly and deliberately about the torment they allegedly endured, each clutching a stress ball and twisting their tiny bodies under gentle questioning from Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami.

Barron sat stone faced as Hatami guided the children through questions. He asked Rafael if Barron was a good mother. He said no. When asked if he loved his mother, the child said he "used to but my feelings have changed."

“I started to realize all the bad things she did to me," the boy continued.

Leiva has admitted to abusing each child but his defense attorneys have argued he did not cause the climactic fatal head injuries that caused the 10-year-old boy's death. Barron's defense is expected to focus on claims Leiva was also abusing her and that she failed to protect her children out of fear of him.

The case also revealed massive failures within L.A. County's child care system. Officials with the Department of Child and Family Services were aware of at least 13 reports of abuse involving Anthony, but the boy was allowed to remain in Leiva and Barron's home. No DCFS employees have been disciplined in connection with the case, the agency has said. Several DCFS employees are expected to testify later in the trial.

With no other witnesses to nearly all of the alleged abuse, prosecutors looked to the children Wednesday to provide firsthand accounts of the days that led up to Anthony's death. Prosecutors have said Anthony was brain dead and lacked a pulse when paramedics arrived at the family's home. They allege Barron waited to call for help until long after the boy suffered a serious head injury in order to give Leiva time to flee. Before he was apprehended, Leiva signed over guardianship of his other children to a relative, according to prosecutors.

On Wednesday, both Rafael and Destiny said Leiva picked up Anthony by his ankles and dropped him on his head as many as 20 times the day before police were contacted.

“Mom told Kareem that she was going to call the police and when Kareem heard that," he grabbed his own children and drove off in Barron's car, Rafael testified. When Barron's attorney asked whom he blamed for Anthony's death, Rafael simply blurted out the name "Kareem."

Both children painted Leiva as their primary tormentor. With Leiva's presence came the grueling workouts, the forced fights, the meals of only peanut butter and a cold tortilla that they had to eat inside of three minutes or be made to drink hot sauce. Destiny said when one child was punished the others were forced to watch. If they broke down in tears, she said, Leiva's rage only seemed to worsen.

While neither described Barron as physically abusive, they both said their mother stood idly by while her boyfriend visited horrors on them.

After describing how Leiva repeatedly slammed Anthony on his head the day before he died, Hatami asked Destiny if the boy just lay on the carpet unable to move. She said yes.

“And what did Mommy do?” Hatami asked.

“Nothing,” Destiny replied.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.